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Thousands in HK protest new security legislation, 300 arrested

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Thousands take to the streets following Beijing's national security legislation proposal

HONG KONG: Police in Hong Kong fired pepper pellets and made 300 arrests as thousands of people took to the streets yesterday to voice anger over national security legislation proposed by China that has raised international alarm over freedoms in the city.

In the heart of the financial district, riot police fired pepper pellets to disperse a crowd, and elsewhere in the city, the police rounded up groups of dozens of suspected protesters, making them sit on sidewalks before searching their belongings.

A heavy police presence around the Legislative Council deterred protesters planning to disrupt the debate of a Bill that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.

Angry over perceived threats to the semi-autonomous city's freedoms, people of all ages took to the streets, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes or school uniforms and some hiding their faces beneath open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook Hong Kong last year.

"Although you're afraid inside your heart, you need to speak out," said Mr Chang, 29, a clerk who was protesting dressed in black with a helmet respirator and goggles.

Many shops, banks and offices closed early.

The latest protests follow the Chinese government's proposal for national security legislation aimed at tackling secession, subversion and terrorism in Hong Kong, terms officials in both Hong Kong and Beijing have used increasingly in regard to the pro-democracy protests.

The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in Hong Kong.

TURNING POINT

The proposal, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first big street unrest in Hong Kong in months, with police firing tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.

The United States, Britain, the European Union and others have expressed concern about the legislation, widely seen as a possible turning point for one of the world's main financial hubs.

But Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city's high degree of autonomy and that the new security law would be tightly focused.

"It's for the long-term stability of Hong Kong and China, it won't affect the freedom of assembly and speech and it won't affect the city's status as a financial centre," Hong Kong chief secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters.

US President Donald Trump, already at odds with Beijing over trade and the coronavirus pandemic, said on Tuesday the US would this week announce a strong response to the planned legislation.

China responded by saying it would take necessary countermeasures to any foreign interference.

Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted "Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times" and "Hong Kong independence, the only way out".

About 300 people were arrested, most for illegal assembly, in three districts, the police said.

Hong Kong's most prominent tycoon, Mr Li Ka-shing, said in a statement security laws were within every nation's right, but Hong Kong had the "mission-critical task" to maintain trust in"one country, two systems".

Hong Kong media reported Beijing aimed to expand the scope of the legislation to include organisations as well as individuals. - REUTERS

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